It is a common misconception that The Blues is a purely American form of music, a fusion of the traditional music of African tribes from whom the early slaves were captured and the folk music or early settlers from Ireland, Scotland, France, Scandinavia, Germany and England. In actual fact The Blues existed long before Columbus first set foot on the North American continent.
Lancashire, a county in the North West of England is for the most part a bleak upland area with its own remote and insular culture. Since the wars of succession in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries this peculiar place has never integrated itself with mainstream British culture. Within Lancashire though is another, even more insular and isolated area, the wetlands of the Ribble Delta.
The Ribble Delta is a unique and particularly harsh environment. The river and its tributaries rise in the hills and as clear, fast flowing streams race down through the Lancashire heartland, the strong currents becoming heavily laden with a dark silt as the water carves deep valleys through the soft rock of Lancashire’s Black Pudding mining area. When the streams hit the coastal plain the load of residue is swelled by dross from the Gingerbread quarries and as the waters finally spread out into a typical delta all of this is deposited as a thick, glutinous slurry.
The marshes of the Delta are home to one of the most impoverished tribes in Britain. In the rest of the world delta people make a good but hazardous living from the mud flats but the Ribble Delta’s sludge, thickened by the natural molasses that is the main constituent of the Gingerbread mined upstream, inhibits even eels from breeding there. The people have literally nothing, eking a sparse living by gathering the harvest from Tripe bushes and Humbug trees that grow in the mud and working the molasses beds along the shoreline. Throughout the rest of Britain poor people who have to wear shabby clothes are said to be “going around with the arse out of their breeches.” The Delta people are so poor they spend most of their lives going around with the arse out of someone else’s breeches.
The one thing that brought some relief from the soul-destroying hardship of these people’s lives was their music, its haunting and melancholy yet strangely uplifting based on modal scales and the passionate, almost feral rhythms seemed to take possession of the listener’s soul. It was called The Devil’s Music by the respectable burghers of nearby cities such as Liverpool and Chester, but to the swamp people singing the Delta Blues was almost an act of worship devoted to some primitive, forgotten deity.
Ribble Delta Blues was introduced to the outside world when Queen Victoria’s godson, Tarquin Farquahar-Parkinson led an expedition into the Delta heartland hoping to find a North West Passage from the London–Glasgow turnpike to Liverpool’s Chinatown so that weary travellers could stop off and get a takeaway meal. Tarquin’s expedition became hopelessly lost on account of the incomprehensible upper class accent in which they asked for directions. “Ay say,” they would enquire of a molasses farmer or tripe gatherer, “way seem to bay absolutelah lorst and appear to bay gaying arind in sarcles. Would yew bay sat kaind as tay direct us tay the nearest tine?” to which the local would reply “Aye, tha mun burr right at singin’ gibbet ond foller thi sneck fer abaht three mile and when that’s gettn theer ask ageen.”
It was hopeless and the explorers wandered for days until they were entranced by the sound of music. Hoping to find that Julie Andrews was the source of the heavenly sound they discovered that it was being made by a hairless adolescent albino with bad teeth. Tarquin gave the boy a handful of coins and within an hour had learned much about the music of The Ribble Delta.
Forgetting the Northwest Passage Tarquin immediately called for his cellpigeon and sent off a text message to his office in London instructing them to register a new artists’ management company. This done he set about tracking down the leading exponents of the Blues. Blind Lemon Clitheroe, Howlin’ Wilf, Clarence “Yellow Dog” Postlethwaite, Sonny Boy Entwistle and Big Bill Butterworth were all signed up quickly but the jewel in Tarquin’s Crown, the artist who would make the phrase Delta Blues synonymous with great music, The Kind of the Ribble Delta Blues Singers was Edgar “Whistling Willy” Slackbottom.
This natural genius was born with handicaps that would have broken the spirit of a lesser mortal. Only four feet six inches tall and partially blind in all three eyes he also had to cope not only with the anal incontinence that was the curse of the Slackbottom clan but also with the fact that due to a genetic defect his urethra was linked to his windpipe causing his willy to whistle constantly. In spite of all these problems Edgar was determined to make his living as a musician. Gifted with a fine singing voice he learned to play guitar at an early age and as puberty approached also found that by using a circular breathing technique similar to that employed by Australian Aborigines when playing the Digeridoo he could control his willy and whistle a counter melody to the tune he was singing.
The noble Tarquin was so overwhelmed by Whistling Willy’s talent he invested the entire family fortune in promoting his star act.
Soon the Ribble Delta Blues was the talk of London society. People of the haughtiest particularity were turning down invitations to functions which would not feature a Delta Blues singer and Whistling Willy himself was commanded to perform to the Queen and her family at Buckingham Palace.
Sadly Whistling Willy’s success was short lived and the cause of his downfall, as so often when a poor boy makes good, was sex. The women of the Ribble Delta are renowned for being deeply unattractive. They spend most of their lives carrying heavy buckets of molasses through the sticky sludge of the gungeflats and consequently over- exercise their abdominal muscles. This results in their having enormous waists and tiny breasts. When the fashionable ladies of London society with their enormous breasts and tiny waists started to pay attention to Willy his head was turned in an instant. The day after he lost his virginity Whistling Willy’s Willy fell silent and whistled no more.
Singing guitar players were ten-a-penny and with his great gimmick lost Willy was reduced to playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, but due to the frequent embarrassing odours that were a consequence of his slack bottom that line of work dried up too. Edgar “Whistling Willy” Slackbottom returned to the Delta a broken man. Soon he disappeared from public view entirely and was never heard of again.
His manager Tarquin Farquahar-Parkinson had a sex change and married the Duke of Earl.
Life went on as it had for centuries in the Ribble Delta but a few of the stars created by the fad managed to hold on to enough money to enable them to emigrate to America. There, as if mystically drawn to mud flats they settled around the Mississippi delta. The local people, who as descendants of slaves had only been allowed to sing Gregorian plainsong chants found the music brought by these new settlers exhilarating and liberating and adopted it as their own.
And that is the true story of the origin of the Blues.